Science-based Nuclear Security and the Iran Agreement

In late February, President Obama asked me to join Secretary of State John Kerry in the P5+1-Iran negotiations as lead U.S. negotiator for the nuclear dimensions of an agreement that would verifiably prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. For many, the inevitable question was “why is the Secretary of Energy engaged in highly sensitive, high-stakes diplomacy, on an issue of critical importance to the United States and our allies in the troubled Middle East, with a country at the root of many of those troubles?”

The answer lies in the fact that the agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — is built upon a foundation of deep nuclear science and technology in both limiting Iran’s nuclear program and introducing necessary verification measures — and the Department of Energy (DOE) is the principal steward of American nuclear security science and technology expertise.

The broad and deep expertise of the scientists and engineers at DOE’s National Laboratories and nuclear security sites was brought to bear on the Iran negotiations from the start. Indeed, the decades of nuclear security experience and ingenuity of this dedicated workforce forms the foundation on which our confidence in the effectiveness of the agreement rests. Understanding and appreciating this dimension of the agreement should be a key consideration as Congress completes its evaluation process of the Iran deal.

Also, over the course of the debate about the Iran agreement, many national leaders and leading experts and analysts in numerous disciplines — scientific, diplomatic, arms control, and military –have forcefully advocated in favor of this agreement because, in part, of the confidence they have in our technical abilities. It is worth repeating some of the reasons why this agreement has earned their trust, in their own words.

Focusing on the agreement’s nuclear dimensions, twenty nine scientific leaders deeply familiar with nuclear issues (familiar names such as Garwin, Drell, Dyson, Hecker, Richter, and others) wrote to the President:

“This is an innovative agreement, with much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated nonproliferation framework … This agreement also for the first time, explicitly bans nuclear weapons R&D, rather than only their manufacture … We recommend that your team work with the IAEA to gain agreement to implement some of the key innovations included in the JCPOA into existing safeguards agreements.”
Letter from 29 scientists to President Obama

In short, they believe the new safeguards features of the Agreement are sufficiently strong, innovative and stringent that they could and should form the basis of a new era for nonproliferation verification.

Thirty-six retired generals and admirals expressed deep concern about the effectiveness of military action and the unintended consequences of opening up yet another Middle Eastern conflict. In no-nonsense fashion, including a recognition that the agreement is “not based on “trust,” they stated:

“We … support the agreement as the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons …. Military action would be less effective than the deal, assuming it is fully implemented …. If at some point it becomes necessary to consider military action against Iran, gathering sufficient international support for such an effort would only be possible if we have first given the diplomatic path a chance.”
Open letter from 36 retired generals and admirals

If such resort to military action is needed in the future, it is not compromised by the agreement. Others have now written against the agreement, but they offer no alternative.

A hundred former American ambassadors wrote the President: “The JCPOA with Iran stands as a landmark agreement in deterring the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

More than 60 national security leaders (Albright, Brzezinski, Eisenstadt, Hamilton, Lugar, and many others) issued a statement calling the agreement a “landmark” that is:

“… unprecedented in its importance for preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran. [It has] significant implications … for … regional stability in the Middle East, Israel’s security, dealing with an untrustworthy and hostile nation, and U.S. leadership on major global challenges.”
Statement from 60 national security leaders

And more than 70 nuclear nonproliferation specialists wrote:

“… the agreement will reduce the risk of a destabilizing nuclear competition in a troubled region— giving time and space to address other regional problems without fear of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons — and head off a catastrophic military conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.”

In short, the central result of the JCPOA, taking an Iranian nuclear weapon off the table, will help us and our allies address other regional issues.

These statements lay out many reasons for support of the JCPOA from a range of critical perspectives. Before I describe some of the provisions of the agreement that have earned these endorsements, however, let me take a few minutes to highlight DOE’s nuclear security science enterprise because, as I have noted, it is fundamental to our confidence in both the major technical features of the agreement as it stands today, as well as its implementation going forward.

Science and Nuclear Security

It’s important to first note that the Nation’s nuclear security agenda was clearly articulated by President Obama early in his Administration during his 2009 Prague speech. It emphasizes two complementary facets:

  • Ensuring a safe, secure and effective deterrent based on a nuclear weapons stockpile sustained without nuclear testing, even as we pursue the long term goal of a world without nuclear weapons;
  • Securing weapons-usable nuclear material around the globe, eliminating such materials when possible, and cooperating to avoid further production of such materials.

These are both critical DOE missions pursued principally through science and technology. Nowhere is this better highlighted than in the Department’s programs to meet the first item in the President’s nuclear security agenda — deterrence achieved by maintaining a viable nuclear stockpile without testing.

The last U.S. underground nuclear test took place almost 23 years ago — but leaders of the DOE national security lab weapons programs say that we know more about how these weapons work today than we would by continuing the testing paradigm relied on for decades.

The reason for this enhanced understanding: extraordinary scientific innovation, manifest in the ability to simulate nuclear weapons — highly engineered systems that perform at extremes of pressure and temperature that stress materials like no place else on Earth — using high performance computing. This program has helped push the simulation frontiers by a factor of a hundred each decade, keeping up with the stockpile needs as we move farther away from tests. This could not have been accomplished by simply applying “off-the-shelf” technologies to the science challenges.

As an aside, in the intervening years, the simulation capability developed in DOE’s weapons program has now become critical in science, energy, industrial and medical applications as well. That’s why President Obama on July 29 announced the National Strategic Computing Initiative, which includes a DOE goal of yet another factor of a hundred within the next decade.

Major breakthroughs were also needed in laboratory capabilities. DOE scientists invented new technologies that could reach the extreme conditions of nuclear weapons, such as a temperature of 100 million degrees, and provide real-time images of materials under conditions analogous to those in a nuclear explosion. The scientific ingenuity displayed in the DOE system brought these and other capabilities online in little more than a decade.

Science also underpins everything the United States does to counter nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. The results of this investment in science-based non-proliferation programs are nothing short of heroic: securing nuclear materials globally, including removal of all HEU from 26 countries; the development of novel technologies to discover foreign nuclear weapons development activities, detect nuclear detonations, and strengthen monitoring and verification; and the characterization, detection, and defeat of the range of nuclear or radiological devices potentially available to a rogue state or terrorists.

The totality of this extraordinary knowledge and experience directly translates into the skills, analysis and expertise required to structure the Iran agreement and monitor its implementation. Our nuclear expertise is unmatched in scope and scale. It inspires confidence in the soundness of the nuclear dimensions of the Iran agreement.

It is worth elaborating on a concrete example of nuclear materials elimination with some lessons for evaluating the Iran agreement. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, at American initiative, the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement, sometimes called the HEU deal, sometimes the Megatons to Megawatts program.

Under this arrangement, Russia would blend down 500 tons of high enriched uranium (HEU) from weapons to an enrichment level appropriate for U.S. nuclear reactor fuel, which we then purchased. This provided Russia with needed resources, the U.S. got fuel for its nuclear reactors, we accomplished our nonproliferation goal of eliminating a massive amount of nuclear weapons material, and the world is a safer place.

The agreement ran for 20 years, from 1993 to the end of 2013. To appreciate the scale, the resulting nuclear power plant fuel supplied 10 percent of U.S. electricity over 20 years from nuclear material for 20,000 weapons. The agreement required strong verification measures to assure us that the weapons material was in fact the origin of the materials we received. Our laboratories came up with new technologies to do real-time enrichment measurement as the HEU and depleted uranium were blended. Similar technology will be part of the Iran deal verification almost two decades later.

Of course, such complex agreements are subject to bumps in the road. Indeed, in 1999, when I served as DOE Undersecretary, the agreement came to a halt because of a failure to implement a component of the agreement that dealt with returning natural uranium to Russia.

Negotiations to restart the program were highly complex with multilateral aspects involving three foreign uranium companies. At then-Secretary Richardson’s request, I led a small negotiating team to restart the deal. Members of that team included a key Department of State colleague deeply engaged in the recent Iran negotiation, as well as my current lead senior advisor on nuclear security at DOE, testament to the deep experience of our Iran team.

While each situation is different, the Iran agreement can be viewed through the lens of this earlier program for some key lessons:

  1. First, it was successful in reaching its objectives over a long time period, spanning two decades and three U.S. administrations. By following the technical terms of the agreement, our Cold War adversary received substantial commercial revenues that bound their self-interest with our nonproliferation objectives.
  2. It required strong verification supported by advanced technologies, developed by the DOE laboratory system.
  3. Finally, challenges were inevitable during the implementation phase, but because these challenges did not mask the underlying self-interests of the parties, they were ultimately worked through to successful conclusion.

The Iran Nuclear Deal

Let me now turn to the JCPOA specifics. I will focus principally on the nuclear dimensions and the differences with and without the JCPOA, referring to a side-by-side comparison that can be found here:

Here’s the top line. With the agreement, there will be an extensive and extended rollback for 15 years of Iranian nuclear activities with a permanent improvement in verification capability by the international community. This is the fundamental architecture of the agreement. This would also include unique verification options for 25 years that could become the basis for the strengthened global nonproliferation verification regime highlighted earlier in the support letter from the scientific community.

Without the agreement, the Iranian nuclear program is likely to go right back to a rapid expansion and, without a strong verification program, the nuclear weapons concern will be magnified.

With the agreement, the international unity that was so critical for both sanctions effectiveness and the negotiation process will be preserved.

Without the agreement, international unity, which arose from the shared commitment to bring Iran to the negotiating table, will likely unravel, along with economic sanctions. American leadership on global issues will suffer.

With the agreement, Iran’s commitment within the JCPOA is to never acquire or develop nuclear weapons or to engage in the development of key nuclear weaponization capabilities — a feature highlighted in the scientists’ letter as unique.

Without the agreement, the world will have far less insight into possible covert weaponization activities.

With the agreement, reprocessing activities that could lead to plutonium separation will not be pursued — without it, they will not be proscribed.

With the agreement, the scope and scale of the Iranian nuclear program will be rolled back in multiple dimensions. Not only will the number of centrifuges engaged in enrichment be scaled back very substantially, but the stockpile of enriched uranium will be reduced by 98 percent for 15 years. This alone accounts for a significant extension of the time to reach a weapon-equivalent of highly enriched uranium should Iran decide to “break out” through uranium enrichment.

With the agreement, Iran’s potential “plutonium factory”, the Arak reactor, will be redesigned to allow effective peaceful uses but not rapid accumulation of plutonium suitable for weapons. All the plutonium-bearing spent fuel for the lifetime of the Arak reactor will be removed from Iran, greatly complicating any Iranian attempts to make nuclear weapons from plutonium.These uranium and plutonium measures underscore the statement of U.S. military leaders that this agreement is more effective than military action in pulling Iran back from the nuclear weapons threshold over a significant period.

Without the agreement, Iran will likely resume expansion of its enrichment program and buildup of huge stocks of enriched uranium, and the Arak reactor will be completed as now designed, providing a potential plutonium pathway to a bomb.

With the agreement, significant verification measures are put in place, including daily access to Iran’s major nuclear facilities for international inspectors. Most important, the Additional Protocol that allows inspector access to suspicious sites anywhere will be permanently followed by Iran and supplemented with special measures for as long as 25 years.

Two unique measures in the agreement are a fixed time frame for providing access to suspicious sites and full uranium supply chain surveillance. These provide a very significant deterrence value against cheating, since the odds of getting caught — with the concomitant strong response from the international community — are raised substantially. The sanctions regime has already shown Iran the severe consequences of not following their Nonproliferation Treaty obligations, and the stakes are raised substantially with the JCPOA.

Without the agreement, all of these verification benefits would be sacrificed.

Our Director of National Intelligence General Clapper has stated that, while there can never be 100% certitude in detecting any particular covert activity, the intelligence community will gain much greater visibility into the Iranian nuclear program with the JCPOA.

Although future Iranian behavior is most important, resolution of possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s previous activities, up to 2003, has attracted attention. It should be emphasized that the IAEA has already done substantial work on PMD. The JCPOA achieves the objective of requiring Iran to promptly cooperate with the IAEA so that the IAEA can finally finish the job, in particular through access to the military site Parchin. The U.S. intelligence community and the IAEA have already published reports that identify Iranian activity associated with nuclear weapons technologies up to 2003, but completing the PMD report is viewed as important for the integrity of the IAEA process going forward.

With the agreement, Iran and the IAEA developed the protocol for Parchin inspection, a site that has been visited previously by the IAEA. This protocol by standard practice is confidential between the country and the IAEA; indeed the confidentiality ultimately is to the benefit of all countries, including the United States. Terming this protocol a “secret side agreement” is a severe distortion and serves no legitimate purpose. The IAEA has a strong self-interest in assuring the integrity of the inspection process and producing a complete PMD report in December for the Board of Governors, which includes the United States.

Director General Amano has rightfully objected to characterizations that Iran will “self-inspect”. He has been clear that the negotiated procedure for Parchin inspection, specifically designed for closing out the existing PMD issue, does not compromise the integrity of the safeguards system. Given available information, a “red team” of DOE national laboratory experts that I convened supported the integrity of the protocol.

With the agreement, the international unity exhibited in the P5+1 negotiations and in the application of economic sanctions has extraordinary value in looking forward to implementation of the JCPOA and denial of any Iranian aspirations to a nuclear weapons program.

Without the agreement, the loss of this unity would weaken U.S. moral authority and collective backing for any response — diplomatic, financial, or military — to potential Iranian actions that do not comply with the JCPOA. The idea of renegotiation lacks credibility. As designed, sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table — and now is the time to harvest the fruits of that negotiation.

Without the agreement, the U.S. standing in negotiating other regional issues in collaboration of major powers would be seriously compromised. This point, along with parallels between the current Iran negotiation and those between President Reagan and Gorbachev, is well stated in an opinion piece by former Colorado Senators Tim Wirth and Gary Hart. They wrote:

“Over the course of a series of mid-1980s summit meetings between the United States and the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan was under tremendous pressure to engage the General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on a full range of issues — from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to human rights. The Soviets countered with a narrow focus on arms control … [T]his narrow agenda became the fulcrum for tectonic shifts in geopolitics …. What the lobbyists and advertising won’t own up to is the ominous reality that rejection of the agreement holds horrendous consequences for the United States ….”
— Former Colorado Senators Tim Wirth and Gary Hart in the Denver Post

As it was in the 1980s with the Soviet Union, we confront Iran on a range of important issues — sponsorship of terrorism, fomenting regional instability, violating human rights, use of unacceptable rhetoric about America and Israel. In a recent letter to Congressman Nadler, President Obama wrote:

“As I have underscored repeatedly, it is imperative that, even as we effectively cut off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon through implementation of the JCPOA, we take steps to ensure we and our allies and partners are more capable than ever to deal with Iran’s destabilizing activities and support for terrorism.”

The commitment to Iran never having a nuclear weapon is quite clear, and we anticipate that future Presidents and the Congress will remain so committed. The JCPOA supports that policy commitment and greatly enhances the tool kit for meeting it during the extended implementation phase. That tool kit depends to a considerable extent on the nuclear dimensions of the deal, both the rollback for 15 years and the indefinite enhancement of verification capability. This is yet another demonstration of the importance of science underpinning nuclear security.

I would like to close by quoting Brent Scowcroft because no one says it better. As many of you know, General Scowcroft was the national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. In a recent column in the Washington Post, he said:

“In my view, the JCPOA meets the key objective, shared by recent administrations of both parties, that Iran limit itself to a strictly civilian nuclear program with unprecedented verification and monitoring …. Israel’s security, an abiding U.S. concern, will be enhanced by the full implementation of the nuclear deal …. Let us be clear: There is no credible alternative were Congress to prevent U.S. participation in the nuclear deal. If we walk away, we walk away alone …. My generation is on the sidelines of policymaking now … but decades of experience strongly suggest that there are epochal moments that should not be squandered. President Nixon realized it with China. Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush realized it with the Soviet Union. And I believe we face it with Iran today.”
— Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, in the Washington Post

I agree with General Scowcroft — there is no credible Plan B being advanced, and moving ahead with the JCPOA offers a chance for fundamental change. The level of mistrust today means that such change would take time, just as it did with the Soviet Union and China. But even if this proves not to be the case, the JCPOA is not built on trust and accomplishes the key Iranian nuclear weapon threat reduction that drove the international community to sanction Iran and to negotiate and support the deal. As stated in the scientists’ letter to the President, the JCPOA has “much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated nonproliferation framework.” It deserves broad American support and endorsement.

You can read the full text of the JCPOA here: